Beginnings of a new dawn?

In the last editorial, we called for a credible left candidate to emerge to contest the leadership of Scottish Labour. As we now know, Richard Leonard has stepped forward and we hope that he will be successful. This should be an uncontroversial statement – for the whole of the left in Scotland will benefit if he does win because his victory will shift the centre of gravity of politics in Scotland further to the left – on issues of class, the purpose and beneficiaries of the economy, the distribution of wealth and power and so on and so forth. Thus,  while it may cause significant challenges to the SNP, Greens and any independent left (like the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP)) in a party political sense, the confirmation and extension of Corbynism in Scotland will be assured with Leonard’s victory. The politics of ‘for the many, not the few’ will come into play in a forceful way.

For the SNP-cum-Scottish Government, Leonard’s victory would, we hope, start to make it to do more than spout well-intentioned words and make it begin to make good on these by delivering on a substantial range of socially progressive policies. Conversely, if Anas Sarwar was to win, the SNP would not face such a challenge. He simply does not have radical politics like Leonard despite some recent opportunistic acts on his part on tax. And that’s not to mention the impact of his personal choices in life over the schooling for his children, shareholding in his father’s company etc etc upon his political credibility. By contrast, Richard comes out from the union movement (STUC, GMB), worked for leftwing MEP, Alex Falconer, and has been active in the Scottish Labour History Society and Keir Hardie Society. He also has an intellectual sharpness and depth as a writer and thinker which few politicians do.

This general benefit for the left here is despite of the particular position Leonard takes on the issue of independence and his silence on what constitutional changes may be needed to bring about a federal or confederal future. Recent polling evidence suggests that support for independence has not died a death because of the Corbyn effect. Even if Leonard as a supporter of Corbynism wins, it is highly unlikely the levels of support for independence will dramatically change. Hence, the need to address the constitutional question in a productive manner, and to recall that much support for independence is based upon seeking to break out of the stranglehold of austerity and neo-liberalism (and not ‘Tartan and shortbread’ nationalism). Last year’s Scottish Labour annual conference agreed to set up a working party on constitutional matters. It is important it does its work as soon as possible.

This general benefit for the left of a Leonard victory is also despite his politics being social democratic – albeit radical social democrat ones – like those of Corbyn and not socialist per se. This is not to split hairs but merely to remember that, one hundred years on from the October revolution, there are, in fact, two strands of socialism. This was why the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party split into two factions in 1903 at its conference held in London – one was called the Bolsheviks (led by Lenin) and one was called the Mensheviks (led by Martov). So there is the parliamentary road which is about reforming capitalism rather than abolishing it. For this very reason, it is called ‘socialism from above’ but is actually social democracy where the modification of the market (its processes and outcomes) is significant and achieved through state ownership. In Britain, the high point of social democracy was the 1945-1951 Labour governments led by Clement Atlee. Under Atlee, the NHS was established and widespread nationalization (steel, coal, rail etc) took place (while the nuclear bomb was developed and colonies not given independence). And, though significant reforms are not to be scoffed at in this age of neo-liberalism and austerity, socialism – ‘socialism from below’ – is the form of revolutionary socialism which does abolish capitalism and sets humanity upon a completely new course. Socialism is either of the reformist or revolutionary sort and not a ‘third way’ variant in between.

The issue of what counts as socialist or social democratic is far from unimportant in our current times. In echoes of the radical October 1974 Labour manifesto, Corbyn, on the eve of the recent Labour Party conference promised in the Observer (24 September), that ‘… our mission must be to work with the people of Britain to transfer wealth, power and opportunity to the many from the few. For the first time in a long time, we can provide a politics of hope and a politics for the people’. Those with longer memories will recall that this October 1974 manifesto was not implemented and did not make for a radical government. Indeed, the first cuts in NHS spending were made and Labour imposed caps on pay rises. In this context, it is worth highlighting that Corbyn at the same conference talked of the supposed ‘national interest’ where the interests of workers and bosses, the poor and the rich, can go hand in hand. The day before the Labour conference started, the Morning Star (23 September) reported  Corbyn declared Labour to be ‘the natural party of business’ because it will work with British businesses to create ‘the kind of economy we want’ and that many businesses have ‘Labour values at their core’. Such a perspective is dangerous to say the least, because as John McDonnell revealed, if a Labour government was to be elected, the capitalists are more than certain to try to make life difficult for it. They could organize a flight of capital abroad or an investment strike. One could see how giving into the capitalists in such a situation would be justified for the supposed ‘national interest’.

All that said, the rise of Corbynism does still raise the issue of what is the practical point of the non-Labour left at the moment when there seems to be only ‘one show in town’. So, are the likes of the Communist Party and SSP just wasting their time by not being in on the rising tide of radical social democracy? It may seem that they are – but times change and a Labour general election victory is far from assured if the research by Compass on the idea of ‘just one last heave’ is to be believed. And, once in office, would Labour also be in power? That alone might highlight that there is a need for political parties to the left of Labour because what happens outside Parliament can have a big bearing on what happens inside it.  And this leads on to another big issue. Can Labour under Corbyn and McDonnell become a mass movement as some like Corbyn and McDonnell hope? The first thing to say is that a mass movement and a mass (political) party are not the same things. Labour membership has grown enormously since Corbyn became leader and is now heading towards 600,000. Even if membership was to reach one million, it would not become a mass movement because movements require ‘membership’ in the millions – such as the union movement or anti-war movement.  But, secondly, mass movements are not based upon membership per se and much more upon active participation and political affiliation. And, thirdly, political parties have an explicit mission – namely, to win office in a parliamentary system – which mass movements do not. We must also remember that Labour has been historically tied to a mass movement that it came out of – the union movement – so there is no need on this account to duplicate.

The differences between a movement and a party are further amplified by the continuing poor health of unions. Membership keeps falling and some have asked quite rightly why Labour can increase its membership will unions cannot. They ask ‘where is the Corbyn bounce for them?’ Corbyn has encouraged workers to join unions and support union rights – which are very welcome – but it is clear that the mass joining to Labour is divorced from a grassroots sense of struggle. Joining Labour and supporting Corbyn is easy. Joining a union and starting to engage in struggle in your workplace is not. Why the difference? Essentially, most support Corbyn because of what he and Labour promise to do for their supporters while unions promise that they can only do things for their members if members are the union.  On top of this, Corbyn supporters see change in society coming from the top of society, not the bottom of society. The sense in which we should see Labour as a political party is all the more emphasised by the review of party democracy that is being led by former MP, Katy Clark. To be a worthwhile review, annual conference must become a policy making conference again and be the sovereign body of the party, putting the National Executive Committee, National Policy Forums and the like in their place.

After the removal of any prospect of an imminent second referendum, the SNP has returned to the ‘day job’ of government. It has to be welcomed that it relaunched itself with a raft of policy pledges in early September. It promises to investigate the introduction of a citizen’s wage, examine the case for increasing taxes for the rich, confirmed plans to lift the 1% public sector pay gap, pledged there would be a public sector bid for the ScotRail franchise. The significance of promises to look at this and promises to look at that was picked up upon by Iain Macwhirter writing in the Herald (10 September). He commented: ‘Mind you, the small print of the Scottish Government’s document, A Nation With Ambition, shows that the legislative programme is not quite as radical as it first appeared’. This showed Macwhirter was more on the ball than the Scotsman’s Tom Peterkins who wrote ‘By signalling tax rises the First Minister has shown her true colours as a politician of the left … Sturgeon has finally lived up to her reputation as a left-winger’ (7 September). Developments since the relaunch show the further limits to SNP radicalism.

First, the announcement on fracking is good but it has to be balanced by the acknowledgement that it resulted from mass public campaigning and that there should be a legal ban not just a continued moratorium. Second, the announcement of a publicly owned energy company is good but it will only cover retail and not power generation and distribution so that it could be held hostage to the big players so its prices are not much lower. Third, there is more help for landlords than renters through the Rental Income Guarantee Scheme. Fourth, the creation of a Scottish National Investment Bank but it will be led by the former chief executive of Tesco Bank. Fifth, care providers have been told to pay the (independent) Living Wage but this has not been fully funded and the compulsion is not great. Lastly, the Scottish Government only agreed to compromise on its schools shake up after stout resistance from local authorities. With the SNP led Scottish Government there is always then a sense of one step forward, two steps back. This is where a victory for Leonard could come into play. With the next Scottish Parliament elections not due until 2021, Scottish Labour led by Leonard could effectively if not explicitly work with the SNP Scottish Government to make it deliver on a number of promises and push it to do more leftwards lest it wishes entertain an election defeat in 2021. This is particularly so on the issue of tax changes.

  • The left in a Britain/Spain and Scotland/Catalonia finds itself in a bit of a common conundrum. All can rightly condemn the violent response of the Spanish government to the holding of the referendum on 2 October – as well as attempts to stop it and the imposition of direct rule. But stepping back from that, the political fault lines and political divisions are surprisingly similar. Support for Catalonian independence is a cross class matter – as it was and remains in Scotland. Capitalists in Catalonia support independence but not all on the political right do. The political left is similarly split. Some in Catalonia want to keep its wealth in Catalonia, favouring a split in the same way that Czech wanted to rid themselves of the ‘poor’ Slovaks. Others want to see Catalonia become a progressive beacon against Spanish austerity and elitism. Others still emphasis the case of Catalonian difference in terms of culture and language. Within Spain as now in Britain, there is a resurgent form of credible social democracy. Podemos came earlier and suffered a setback recently but it comes out of a popular revulsion against neo-liberalism and austerity as has Corbynism. So matters of whether there is a Spanish or Catalonian road to socialism are equally complicated as whether there is a British or Scottish road to socialism. Ebbs and flows take place in both.
  • As readers will see, we have the beginnings of what we hope will be a fruitful debate in future editions on the nature of the SNP. Further contributions are welcomed on this and any other responses to editorials.